A Designed Language

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars

Roman Mars:
Let me start with this. The invented language of Esperanto has a flag. And it kicks ass. Green field. White canton in the upper left corner with a green, five-pointed star on it. I’d be on board because of the design of the flag alone. Seriously. I could march in the streets behind that flag. But that’s not the Esperanto way at all. Esperanto is about hope.

Sam Green:
It was created in the 1880s by a Polish eye doctor named Ludwig Zamenhof. And he lived in this town, Bialystok where there were Poles, Jews, Germans, and Russians, and they all spoke different languages and they all hated each other. So he had this idea that if everyone spoke a common language, they could communicate, they could get to know each other as people and there wouldn’t be any more racism or conflict, which is a beautiful idea.

Roman Mars:
This is Sam Green.

Sam Green:
My name is Sam Green, I’m the director of Utopia in Four Movements.

Roman Mars:
One of the four movements of Sam Green’s live documentary is about Zamenhof’s utopia of Esperanto.

Sam Green:
In some ways, the history of Esperanto really mirrors the 20th century in a certain flowering of utopian energy and ultimate waning of that by the end of the century.

Roman Mars:
Zamenhof’s full dream of peace through a shared second language never came to pass. According to estimates, somewhere between 50,000 and 2 million people speak Esperanto. But that shouldn’t suggest Esperanto is a failure.

Arika Okrent:
In the history of invented languages, it’s the greatest success story ever.

Roman Mars:
Guest number two, Arika Okrent.

Arika Okrent:
My name is Arika Okrent and I’m the author of “In the Land of Invented Languages.”

Roman Mars:
Esperanto was a real product of the time.

Arika Okrent:
In the end of the 19th century, early 20th century, when nationalism was tearing Europe apart, all these old empires were crumbling. And the lines around which they fractured were linguistic ones.

Roman Mars:
So it made a lot of sense to say “Hey, let’s find a linguistic solution to our problems.” But the mantle of Esperanto as the king of invented languages also had to do with its design as a language.

Arika Okrent:
Well, Esperanto was designed to have as simple as possible a grammar. All nouns end in “o,” all adjectives end in “a,” verb tense is indicated by regular endings, and it never varies, so there are no irregular verbs.

Roman Mars:
So you learn a finite number of endings and few root words and you’re up and running.

Voiceover:
“After a few weeks of learning Esperanto, you can start communicating meaningfully with other speakers.”

Roman Mars:
But its other strength is that it’s not too engineered. Being overdesigned is a pitfall of many other invented languages.

Arika Okrent:
Previous projects tried to be so consistent and regular and sort of break down the entire world of concepts into their component pieces. Each letter would contain a part of meaning within it.

Roman Mars:
Those kinds of languages are impossible to use.

Arika Okrent:
Esperanto has this nice sloppy middle ground. It’s this nice balance between systematicity and arbitrary sloppiness. And when it comes to language, we need both of those things. In our natural languages, we need a way to get more specific when we need to, so we have stuff like legal jargon, but it also lets us just sort of talk without necessarily knowing where we’re going with it or knowing exactly we mean.

Roman Mars:
So for all you language inventors out there, don’t make it too perfect. A little fuzziness is key. So is artistic expression. From the beginning, Zamenhof stressed poetry and music in Esperanto, and there are unique aspects to the language that make it especially suited to a kind of poetic wordplay.

Arika Okrent:
With endings, you can make any word into a verb. So if you have “blua” meaning blue, you can also have a verb, “bluas” is blue-ing. So in Esperanto, he can say “la ĉielo estas blua.”

Roman Mars:
The sky is blue.

Arika Okrent:
But if he really wants to be Esperantist about it, he’ll say ” la ĉielo bluas.”

Roman Mars:
The sky is blue-ing.

Arika Okrent:
And that’s a very Esperanto way of expressing it.

Roman Mars:
Any word can also be an adverb.

Arika Okrent:
Which is strange, not many languages have this feature. So you don’t say “I go to the beach in the summer,” you will say “summer-ly, I go to the beach.”

Roman Mars:
Summerly I go to the beach. If you do not approve of that sentence, I don’t want to live in your dark and joyless little world.

[Music]

Roman Mars:
One of the ultimate ironies of Esperanto is that one of its most widespread uses in the US was during the Cold War.

Sam Green:
The US would do these war games against a fictitious enemy.

Roman Mars:
The Maneuver Enemy. Also known as “the Aggressor.”

Sam Green:
And they’d have to have the enemy speaking a different language. And since they didn’t want to offend any other country, they couldn’t have them speaking Spanish or French, Russian even. They had them speaking Esperanto.

Roman Mars:
Esperanto was used by the US Army so it wouldn’t possibly offend another country and cause some unnecessary conflict. So even in this distinctly American, completely twisted context, Esperanto achieved exactly what it was designed to do.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center For Architecture and Design. Find out more and see the flag of Esperanto, which you really should do, go to 99percentinvisible.org.

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